Ever since Yahoo wore the despicable-evil-patent-troll cape and established itself as the loathed company in the current technological climate, there was wide-scale debate within the tech community about this whole alleged patent infringement dispute and possible solutions to the obvious patent laws fiasco problem.
In one hand there is clearly a need to defend companies’ innovative inventions from being stolen by other companies, but in the other hand there is also a need to defend the whole tech industry to be dragged into a vague and blurry patent suits which will eventually damage innovation as the lawsuits’ fear-factor would take too bigger part of the picture.
Into this vacuum of conflict, Twitter is trying to bring its recently announced Innovator’s Patent Agreement (or IPA) as some solution to fill this void. The big questions are, if it indeed offers sufficient balance to the patents dispute? And if so, will other companies join and adopt the agreement?
Let’s first try to find out what is this agreement really about.
The IPA is publicly open for all to study and weigh on GitHub, currently at version 0.95, suggesting it is open for improvements and as also being referred by Twitter as “draft”. The IPA is essentially a four-sections agreement between the company and its employees, elaborating the use of patents created by the employees during their work for the company. Here are the basic explanations of each section:
Section 1- Describes that the inventor (the employee) is transferring all the legal rights of the patent and its improvements which were filed anywhere in the world to the company. Almost any company (especially tech companies) currently has this section in one form or the other on agreements and contracts with its employees.
Section 2- Describes that the company can only use the patents for “defensive purposes” and only with a written permission of the original inventor(s). This section is basically shifting some of the legal-power of the patents back to the employees. Even though this section is offering some of the needed balance, I’m identifying two main problematic issues:
- Although the agreement is clearly stating that the inventors’ written permission should be taken “without additional consideration or threat” (both on this section and also on section 4), the basic fact that the inventor(s) works for the company and would probably like to keep a positive relations with the company is a threat by itself which may push employees to grant the written permission even if they disagree with the claims.
- The bigger issue is the definition of “defensive purposes”. Companies may have different interpretation of what defensive means. Even Yahoo with its BS suit was claiming it is supposedly “defending” the company and its shareholders. Basically any company with a reasonable legal representation could find the desired definition why a certain lawsuit is “defensive”.
Section 3- Describes that inventors MUST sign all legal papers to provide the company all the rights to use the patents as it pleased. Mostly means that if a company would like to sell its patents or rent their use, the original inventor(s) has no say in that. This is pretty logical, company SUPPOSE to be able to sell or use its patents as it pleased in order to function properly.
Section 4- Basically explains that the inventor(s) is giving all the rights of the patents forever and ever to the company, except for what has been described in section 2 (all the written permission for defensive purposes stuff). The inventor’s rights over the patent can’t be transferred to others, unless the inventor has deceased (the rights will be passed to the inventor’s heirs).
As you probably understood, most of the “meat” in the agreement that may provide some solutions, resides on section 2. However, due to the reasons I explained, it still lacks the necessary teeth to make a complete order in this patents mess. The good news are that this is definitely a great step into the right direction.
Hopefully, many small, medium and large companies will join this initiative and would try to improve it. I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but I truly believe that if eventually this agreement (or improved version of it) would stick as a default commitment between companies and their employees, the tech industry could create a much better products in the future.
As for Twitter, it just branded itself as the good guy in the tech scene landscape and from now on will be judged according to the high standards it set for itself. This is a bold initiative which I’m sure boosting the morale of Twitter’s employees and allows them to focus on what really matters and expected from a tech company, innovation.